What a strange time to be alive. When was the last time your week passed without a worry or crisis? I feel like there was a window for this (for white folk) some time in the 50s, and the rest of history has been a wash of fear, punctuated by slowly increasing downtime in which fear is traded for lingering anxiety that gets medicated away through self-destructive habits. So, enjoy your two and half days of anxious intoxication. See you Monday.
Kitty Lewis, the brains, brawn, and brass balls behind Brick Books, is retiring. There was a hot ticket Zoom event that tons of people couldn’t get into, so I’d like to say here that Kitty IS Canadian poetry, and while she can never be replaced, she is now, and will remain, a shining example of grace, wit, and positive direction for the coming generations of poetry publishing folk to follow.
Who creates the meaning of a piece of fiction? The writer? The reader? Both? It’s a question I put to my poetry students all the time. This is a nice little reflection on the things at play here by a young writer figuring things out (I hope she has better luck that I have in this endeavour). Maybe too simple for some of you, but good for your students?
Barthes’s question seemed like a revelation to me. As a reader and as a writer, I constantly ask myself, “Who is speaking like this?” Among some writers and critics, first-person fictional narrators have become less popular lately. I understand the limits of this point of view, but its apparent drop in popularity doesn’t faze me. So far, all three of my published stories have had first-person protagonists as narrators. A completely objective, all-knowing narrator would be impossible, which is why I find omniscient third the hardest to write.
… my creative writing and English professor in college, helped me refine my fiction and critical writing. I wrote stories in his creative writing classes that were published years later. He asked me, about the villain of my best story, “Why do we hate him already?” It was a perceptive question that improved my story considerably. I was viewing the villain from my own perspective as the author, not as my protagonist would have seen him so early in the narrative. So, even when I tried to write fiction in first person, some of my own opinions would still come through.
When I can’t get into a book I’m reading, I often experience a similar dilemma. The narrator might know way too much or too little. Either can make a story confusing or unconvincing. I sometimes struggle to connect with a book because, like Barthes, I can’t pinpoint who the narrator is or why they’re telling this story. Characters’ inner monologues and telling stories to other characters are two devices that have been used countless times, but they can still be original.
Discussions about obscenity often devolve into this bad-faith dichotomy—the prudish schoolmarms with their red-pens painting over anything blue and the brave defenders of free speech pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse. The former hold that there is a certain power to words that must be tamed, while the later champion the individual right to say what they want to say. When the issue is phrased in such a stark manner, it occludes a more discomforting reality—maybe words are never simply utterances, maybe words can be dangerous, maybe words can enact evil things, and maybe every person has an ultimate freedom to use those words as they see fit (notably a different claim than people should be able to use them without repercussion). Bruce’s theory of language is respectably semiotic, a contention about the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, whereby that chain of connection can be severed by simple repetition, as when sense flees from a word said over and over again, whether it’s “potato” or “xylophone.” But he was ultimately wrong (as is all of structural and post-structural linguistics)—language is never exactly arbitrary, it’s not really semiotic. We need theurgy to explain how words work, because in an ineffable and numinous way, words are magic. When it comes to obscenity in particular, whether the sexual or the scatological, the racial or the blasphemous, we’re considering a very specific form of that magic, and while Bruce is correct that a prohibition on slurs would render resistance to oppression all the more difficult, he’s disingenuous in not also admitting that it can provide a means of cruelty in its own right. If you couldn’t say obscenities then a certain prominent tweeter of almost inconceivable power and authority couldn’t deploy them almost hourly against whatever target he sees fit. This is not an argument for censorship, mind you, but it is a plea to be honest in our accounting.
Like any grimoire or incantation, obscenity can be used to liberate and to oppress, to free and to enslave, to bring down those in power but also to froth a crowd into the most hideous paroxysms of fascistic violence. So often the moralistic convention holds that “punching down” is never funny, but the dark truth is that it often is. What we do with that reality is the measure of us as people, because obscenity is neither good nor bad, but all power resides within the mouth of who wields it. What we think of as profanity is a rupture within language, a dialectic undermining conventional speech, what the Greeks called an aporia that constitutes the moment that rhetoric breaks down. Obscenity is when language declares war on itself, often with good cause. Writing in Rabelais and His World, the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin defined what he called the “carnivalesque,” that is the principle that structured much medieval and Renaissance performance and literature, whereby the “principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which the grotesque is based destroys…seriousness and all pretense.” Examining the Shrovetide carnivals that inaugurated pre-Reformation Lent, Bakhtin optimistically saw something liberatory in the ribald display of upended hierarchies, where the farting, shitting, pissing, vomiting hilarity of the display rendered authority foolish. “It frees human consciousness,” Bakhtin wrote, “and imagination for new potentialities.”
A story can be raw and it might not be so technically facile. Sometimes it’s like over-polishing a diamond. You can polish away all the rough edges that actually make it beautiful. While I do think editing is important, you can over-edit a story. Then you’re kind of getting away from the beauty, the heart and the power it had.
We are having the yard redone outside my window right now, so I am going to make this quick and then flee from this room with hands over ears. I swear to god the whine of a chop saw (or at least one you yourself are not operating) has the potential to completely overhaul the torture industry.
I see the prominence of “relevance” as a term of assessment in our current critical language as part of a huge and necessary correction, an assertion that these and other supposedly marginal experiences are pertinent, as all human experience is pertinent, to the communal endeavor to make sense of ourselves that is the labor of art. What I find moving in the shared etymology of “relevant” and “relieve”—that fossil poem I began with—is the resonance between “to make stand out, to render prominent or distinct,” and “to give ease from pain or discomfort.” The struggle to assert the value of a broader range of voices in our literature has relieved an injury, the injury of invisibility. That struggle is ongoing: just a few years ago, in a graduate seminar at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an author I continue to revere characterized my work as resembling “a sociological report on the practices of a subculture.” The fallacy of a certain idea of universality is to imagine that any human experience is unmarked by the accidents of geography, history, demographics—to believe that an account of a Congregationalist minister in rural Iowa, say, is somehow larger, more relevant to a shared human story, than an account of sex among gay men. The idea of universality, when used in this way, is nothing more than a maneuver whereby a privileged social position—which is often the position of straightness, whiteness, and maleness—secures its own default status, and therefore its immunity from self-awareness and critique.
Because these battles are still being fought, I hesitate to articulate the ways in which I think our use of the word “relevant” is distorting our appraisals of art. But I can’t help feeling that the current idea of “relevance” recapitulates some of the disturbing features of “universality,” in the way my literature professors once applied the term. For decades now, since that change in usage, we have not had to specify to whom or to what a particular relevance pertains. That omission has become a presumption, making the word a kind of unmarked term. But relevance is never really unmarked: we generally do mean relevant to or for something or someone; we are all, always, addressing constituencies. The danger of obscuring this fact is that, like a certain usage of “universal,” it is ultimately a term of exclusion. Anytime we praise the relevance of a particular novel, we are positing, at least implicitly, the irrelevance of other novels; and often enough we make this judgment explicit. We are tired, I sometimes hear my friends say, I sometimes hear myself say, of stories about straight, white, privileged men contemplating adultery; we are tired of stories about Americans abroad; we are tired of stories about middle-class malaise. We are tired.